The Sunday Conversation
4:34 pm
Sun June 8, 2014

A Christian Climate Scientist's Mission To Convert Nonbelievers

Originally published on Thu June 19, 2014 3:56 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Last week, the Obama administration announced historic regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions. Policies to address climate change have been a tough sell among some Republicans on Capitol Hill, but also in many Christian congregations around the country.

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also a devout Christian.

Hayhoe has spent the last few years trying to convince other Christians that climate change is real, and that caring about the issue is one of the most Christian things you can do. She told NPR's Rachel Martin of the difficulties of spreading that message among Christian congregations.

"The people we trust, the people we respect, the people whose values we share, in the conservative community, in the Christian community, those people are telling us, many of them, that this isn't a real problem — that it's a hoax," Hayhoe says. "Even worse, that you can't be a Christian and think that climate change is real. You can't be a conservative and agree with the science."

Hayhoe says what Christians often question about climate change is if God is in control, how could this happen? Another argument she hears is the idea that humans could change climate threatens the sovereignty of God.

"The answer to that is pretty simple: It's free will," she says. "God gave us the brains to make good choices and there's consequences to the choices that we make."

And that's what climate change is, she says, a consequence of an industrialized society that depends on coal, oil and gas for many of our resources.

Hayhoe says that once people can get past the stage where they're bashing each other over the head with facts and political opinions, and get to point of sharing what they truly care about, at that point, she says, we can make some progress forward. She also says that to care about green issues you don't have to be a liberal or what people call "tree huggers."

"I think the most important message for people is that each of us already has the values in our hearts that we need to care about this issue," she says.

In her presentations, Hayhoe says she finds it effective to address the questions people have: How do we know that climate change is even real? How could I care about climate change as a Christian/Conservative/Republican? For some people, she says, it can feel like giving up their identity in order to care about climate change.

But lately she is also seeing a shift in the questions she's being asked. They've moved away from the specifics of climate change or what's heard on the news. Instead, people are asking what they can do about the problem.

"That's where I want to go," she says.

Join The Conversation

Do you and all your friends and family agree on climate change? Where are the dividing lines? Tell us what you think on the Weekend Edition Facebook page, or in the comments section below.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, the Obama administration announced historic regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions. Policies to address climate change have been a tough sell among some Republicans on Capitol Hill, but also in many Christian congregations around the country.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: That's the problem we still have today. The people we trust, the people we respect, the people whose values we share in the conservative community, in the Christian community - those people are telling us - many of them - that this isn't a real problem. That it's a hoax. Even worse, that you can't be a Christian and think that climate change is real. You can't be a conservative and agree with the science.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Katharine Hayhoe. She's an atmospheric scientist and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Hayhoe is also a devout Christian. She spent the last few years trying to convince other Christians that climate change is real and that caring about the issue is a reflection of Christian values. Katharine Hayhoe is our Sunday Conversation.

HAYHOE: If you look back in time, in the 1990s, it was not a politically divisive issue. It has become so polarized, just over the past 15 years or so. And so I was so naave about this that my husband and I, who I met at graduate school in Illinois - we actually got married. And we'd been married about six months before we figured out that he didn't think climate change was real. And that was what I was doing with my life.

MARTIN: What was the basis of his argument? I mean, you have said before there's a lot of disinformation targeted at religious communities when it comes to climate change - like what?

HAYHOE: Well, my husband had grown up attending a Southern Baptist school and a Christian college for his undergraduate degree. And he had never met anybody who shared his values and shared his politics and his faith who had said that this was a problem.

MARTIN: What is incompatible? When you go around and you talk with conservative Christian communities about climate change, what do you hear from those communities about why it is un-Christian to believe that climate change is happening? Why is that not compatible to them?

HAYHOE: One of the biggest issues I often get asked is if God is in control, how could this happen? Or to put it another way, doesn't the idea that humans could change climate threaten the idea of the sovereignty of God? And the answer to that is actually pretty simple. It's free will. God gave us the brains to make good choices, and there's consequences to the choices that we make. And that's what climate change is. It's a consequence to the fact that we have an industrialized society that depends on coal and oil and gas for many of our resources.

And another argument that you hear a lot in Christian circles is, well, if the world is going to end anyways, why bother? In fact, won't this just hasten the end of the world? And in that case, we can actually look directly to the book of Thessalonians where Paul wrote to people very strongly. And the apostle said, don't just quit your job and lay around waiting for Christ to return. Go get a job, work, support your family and care for the poor. That's what we're intended to do, not just sit around and say, ah, it's going to end anyways.

MARTIN: How do people receive your message?

HAYHOE: Well, if we can get past the stage where we're kind of bashing each other over the head with our facts and our political opinions, and if we can get to the point where we're sharing what's actually in our hearts, what we care about - then, at that point, I think we can really make some good progress forward because to care about climate change, we've been told - and when I say we, I mean all of us, have been told that we need to have green values. That we essentially need to be tree huggers. These days, it's gotten to the point where we need to be liberals. I think the most important message for people is that each of us already has the values in our hearts that we need to care about this issue.

If we are a conservative, conserving is what we do. If we are Christian, loving others is what we do. If we're a parent, wanting a better world for our child is what we do. If we're human, we, you know, we live on planet Earth. We want that earth to be able to support our society, our way of life, our economy. We want a better world for ourselves.

MARTIN: What does your presentation look like? I mean, when you go out into the country, to communities, into churches, other groups, do you have a PowerPoint? Do you just sit and take questions? How do you structure your message?

HAYHOE: Well, I'm a scientist, so I have to have a PowerPoint.

(LAUGHTER)

HAYHOE: So what I've found to be very effective is to address the questions that I've learned that people have because people have really good questions about climate change. Depending on who I'm talking to, the questions could be how do we know this thing is even real? Or, again, I'm a conservative or I'm a Christian or I'm a Republican, how could I care about climate change? Isn't this is an, you know, a foreign thing to me? Wouldn't it mean giving up my identity, turning into somebody else - somebody who I might not like very much to care about climate change? And then a big question - one of the biggest questions now - is what can we do about this? Are there plausible, palatable solutions or is it just this hopeless case?

MARTIN: Have you ever changed any minds when you leave these presentations and these groups, communities? Do you have any evidence that perhaps you have changed an opinion or perspective?

HAYHOE: From the responses I've gotten, I would say that that is definitely happening. I've had people say things to me like, well, I didn't think that this whole global warming thing was real. But you addressed every single argument I had. So if I'm going to keep on thinking that, I have to come up with new arguments. I don't think it gets much more honest than that. And I think that I'm also seeing a major shift these days in the types of questions I get. The questions I'm getting these days are not questions about, well, I heard the Antarctic ice was doing this. Or isn't the ice cap on Mars melting too? Or isn't this just a natural cycle? These are not the questions I'm getting anymore. The questions I'm getting now are what can I do about this problem? And that's where we want to go.

MARTIN: Lastly, I wonder if your faith has taken on a new dimension through this kind of dialogue that you're doing on climate change with Christian communities. Has that affected you personally?

HAYHOE: Absolutely, it has. I feel like - this has been one of the biggest challenges for me is to understand, first of all, what my faith means in the context of this global issue. And second of all, to really understand what it means to love others, not just people who are, you know, living on the other side of the world being harmed by this issue. But people who live right here beside me who feel radically different than I do on the issue. That's the hardest challenge, I think, to love.

MARTIN: Katharine Hayhoe. She's an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change. Katharine, thanks so much for talking with us.

HAYHOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.